Persecution Escalates – Acts 5:17-42

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

November 13, 2005

Persecution Escalates

Acts 5:17-42

A couple of weeks ago I pointed out that much of American Christianity has fallen into the trap of the belief that underlies the message of the health, wealth & prosperity preachers. Those preachers push this idea into a right and demand of being able to name and claim whatever you want from God. Of course, the safety net for their heresy is that if you do not have those things it is because you do not have enough faith. Most American Christians do not go that far, but they have bought into the idea that God will protect them from all harm and meet their needs and desires. The truth is that though we can trust in God’s protection and provision for our needs, He has not promised to meet our wants nor has He promised that we will escape all physical or emotional harm. In fact, Jesus promises just the opposite for those that will follow Him. In passages such as Matthew 5:10-12, Matthew 10:16-23, John 15:20, John 16:32,33, Luke 21:12,13 Jesus made it clear to His disciples that they would face tribulation because of their relationship with Him. Paul put it bluntly in 2 Timothy 3:12, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

As I said two weeks ago, those are not popular verses in mainstream American Christianity, but they have been very precious verses of comfort and hope around the world and throughout history to those that have suffered such persecution. Perhaps we can see how much we are affected by an incorrect theology when we look at how quickly we will question what God is doing when any bad thing happens to us, yet we never question Him about why we do not experience more persecution.

When we studied the first part of Acts 4 we saw the beginnings of persecution against the early church, but that persecution was really fairly minor. Peter and John had healed a man who had been lame for more than forty years. The sight of this man leaping and walking around in the Temple attracted a large crowd to which Peter proclaimed the gospel. The priests, chief of the temple guard and Sadducees did not like Peter’s preaching, so they arrested him and John and threw them in jail for the night. The next day the Sanhedrin questioned them by what power they had healed the man. Peter made it clear that the miracle took place by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth whom they had put to death, but God had raised to life, and that there was no other name by which you must be saved. They commanded Peter and John to not speak or teach in the name of Jesus, but Peter answered that they had to obey God, not man. They then threatened them and let them go. In reality, being thrown in jail for a night, questioned, threatened and released is not serious persecution, and the church’s response was to just become more bold in proclaiming the gospel with an emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection.

The Setting (12-16)

Last week we saw the care the early Christians had for one another as those who had the means would share with those in need so that there was no poor among them. We also saw the quick judgement God brought upon Ananias and Sapphira for their lying. Though God’s discipline caused great fear to come upon all who heard of their deaths, that fear actually strengthened the church. Those who would have been tempted to do the same thing in being half-hearted in following Christ while seeking prestige for themselves shied away from the believers, while those that were serious about following God flocked into the church. Verse 14 tells us that multitudes of men and women were constantly being added to the church. Luke could no longer keep count of how many had become followers of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, the apostles were performing signs and wonders and healing all that they came in contact with them regardless of the physical malady, its cause or the person’s faith. There were so many people coming that they could no longer fit under or near Solomon’s portico where the apostles had been preaching, so they brought the sick on cots and pallets and laid them in the streets where Peter might walk by. The gospel was starting to spread beyond Jerusalem to the surrounding cities.

The large crowds also attracted the attention of those that had previously arrested Peter and John.

The Arrest (17-18)

The high priest along with all his fellow Sadducees are quite upset about the work and preaching of the Apostles. Remember that they not only are the Sadducees the theological liberals of the time that reject the supernatural, but under the control of the High Priest they also have a very lucrative business in the Temple. One of the reasons they hated Jesus so much was that He disrupted that business when He had drove out the moneychangers and vendors that had set up shop in the Court of the Gentiles (John 2:15,16). That was supposed to be an area for anyone from any nation to come and pray to the Lord God, but they had made it a marketplace. They are still very concerned about anything cutting into either their power & prestige or their business. The activities and message of the apostles threatened both. Our text says in verse 17, “But the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy.” The word here for jealous (zh’lo” / zêlos) is also translated as zeal, and so also has the sense of being mad or indignant.

Verse 18 tells us, “and they laid hands on the apostles, and put them in a public jail.” They arrest all of the apostles this time instead of just Peter and John. This is done in the same manner as they had done before by laying their hands upon them and then putting them in jail. Luke adds the description here that it was the public jail which just adds to the idea that they were trying to make a public spectacle of the apostles and embarrass them by the arrest.

Released by an Angel (19-25)

But regardless what plans men may make, God has His own plans, and His plans always win. In this case, the Lord did not want His apostles to remain in jail. Verse 19 tells us, “But an angel of the Lord during the night opened the gates of the prison, and taking them out he said, ‘Go your way, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life.’” The Lord sent an angel who opened the gate for them, brought them out and then gave them the Lord’s instructions. They were to go back to the temple and continue preaching Jesus Christ. Luke refers to the gospel here as “all the words of this life.” Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, said in His priestly prayer in John 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” 1 John 5:11,12 latter added, “And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” That is the message that the were to continue to proclaim. It is the same message that we are to proclaim to others today. Eternal life is found only in Jesus Christ, God’s son.

Verse 21 tells us the apostles were faithful to the instructions. “And upon hearing [this,] they entered into the temple about daybreak, and [began] to teach.” This gives us an indication that the angel released them early in the morning so that they arrived at the temple at about daybreak. They then continued teaching about Jesus just they way they had been doing since the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.

Verse 21 goes on to tell us what was happening with the High Priest. “Now when the high priest and his associates had come, they called the Council together, even all the Senate of the sons of Israel, and sent [orders] to the prison house for them to be brought.” The High Priest is completely unaware that the apostles are back in the Temple teaching. He and all those with him, which would be other Sadducees and those from his family (as in 4:1-6), arrive at the council hall. They call for the Sanhedrin and the elders of the people (here described as “the council of the sons of Israel) to meet. In preparation for that meeting he also sent orders to the prison house to have the apostles brought. However, as verses 22 & 23 state, the apostles were no longer there. “But the officers who came did not find them in the prison; and they returned, and reported back, saying, “We found the prison house locked quite securely and the guards standing at the doors; but when we had opened up, we found no one inside.”

As can be imagined, this news would have come as quite a shock. Verse 24 records, “Now when the captain of the temple [guard] and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them as to what would come of this.” Now you must remember that the Sadducees do not know that an angel released the apostles, and they would have rejected that story even if they had been told because they did not believe in angels. As far as they could tell there was some sort of intrigue going on by someone with enough power to release the apostles and have all the guards as part of the conspiracy.

It is right at this time while they are so confused about how the apostles could have gotten out of jail without anyone willing to reveal what happened, when another man comes into the Sanhedrin. Verse 25 records, “But someone came and reported to them, “Behold, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” At least the mystery of where they had gone was solved, but this news could only have made them even more perplexed. Most people who escape from jail flee to some place where they will not be caught and returned to jail. Not only did the apostles not flee, they had boldly gone back to the very place they were arrested and were doing the very same thing for which they were arrested. What else was going on that they did not know about that would cause these men to be so bold to do this?

The Re-Arrest (26)

They still have to deal with the apostles so they have them re-arrested. However, the events of that morning lead them to be cautious and do it in a different manner this time. “Then the captain went along with the officers and [proceeded] to bring them [back] without violence (for they were afraid of the people, lest they should be stoned).” This time they are afraid. The people hold the apostles in high regard. If the apostles had resisted at all, the people would have risen up to defend them and might have even stoned the captain and his guard. But the apostles do not resist the re-arrest. They have every reason to cooperate, because if God could release them one time, he could release them another time just as easy. They are simply doing their best to obey God and let him take care of the consequences. That is all God asks us to do. Obey Him and let Him take care of the consequences. His command was for them to return to the Temple and continue teaching. This is an interesting juxtaposition. It is not the ones being arrested that are afraid, but those who are doing the arresting. The closer you walk with God, the less reason there is to have any fear.

The Questioning (27,28)

Once the apostles are again in custody they are brought into the Sanhedrin for questioning, though the question in verse 28 is more of an accusation than a question. 27 And when they had brought them, they set [them] before the council. And the high priest asked them, 28 saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!” (NKJV)

There are several things to take note in this question and accusation by the high priest. First, he does not ask anything about how they got out of prison. Second, he will not even mention the name of Jesus, but refers to Him as “this name” and then “this man.” Third, the rhetorical question is actually an accusation that uses a ploy still used today to try and convict someone who has not broken a law. It works by commanding them to not do something that is legal, then when they do it, charge them with disobedience to authority. In this case, even that trumped up charge could only be applied to Peter and John, but he instead applies it to all of the apostles. Fourth, the high priest reveals how effective the apostles have been in their preaching for they “have filled Jerusalem” with their teaching. Fifth, he refers to the gospel as “your teaching” as if it originated with them and was done by their own authority even though the apostles have repeatedly made it clear that what they taught and what they did originated with and was done by the authority of Jesus Christ (2:22, 23, 36, 39, 3:6, 13, 16, 10, 19,20). Sixth, the high priest sought to blame the apostles for putting the blame of Jesus death on them when they had done that themselves. Recall that at Jesus’ crucifixion it was the chief priests and elders that had persuaded the crowd to ask for Jesus to be put to death even when Pilate sought to free Him. When Pilate finally washed his hands and said that he was innocent of Jesus’ blood, all those in the crowd answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:20,24,25). They are guilty of the murder of Jesus, but they do not want face the responsibility for it.

The Defense (29-32)

The defense of the apostles is direct and succinct, but it is also a message of hope for the guilty. But Peter and the apostles answered and said, “We must obey God rather than men. “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. “And we are witnesses of these things; and [so is] the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

The other apostles join in making the same reply that Peter & John

had made when they were arrested a short time earlier. When it comes to choosing whom to obey, there really is no question. God must be obeyed rather than man. They also did not shy away from any of the accusations of the high priest. They state very directly that the Sanhedrin was responsible for Jesus death with an emphasis on the fact they had hung Him on a tree. The NASB translates this as “cross,” but the word is actually “a tree” (xuvlon / xulon) and refers to Deut. 21:23 which says that a person who commits a sin worthy of death was to be hung on a tree “for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” The apostles not only charge the Sanhedrin with the murder of Jesus, but also with seeking to have Him cursed by God by the method of their murder. That is why it is very important to also note that they make this very serious charge against the high priest and elders of Israel as secondary to their emphasis upon what God had done to Jesus.

Prior to this charge, the apostles state that “the God of our fathers raised up Jesus.” By using the phrase “the God of our fathers” they are identifying themselves with the Sanhedrin that they have a common heritage, and that the God of that common heritage in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had raised Jesus up from the dead. Immediately after their charge against the Sanhedrin they emphasize that this same God had exalted Jesus to His right hand, which is the seat of power and authority, as a Prince and a Savior. If they had stopped there then their message to the Sanhedrin would have been one of the exaltation of Jesus who they were guilty of killing. It would have been a message of condemnation without hope. But they did not stop there. They went on to give hope in Jesus Christ even to those that had put Him to death.

The end of verse 31 is that God had done this “to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” There was hope given even to this evil high priest and these elders for the murder of Jesus. However, they would have to repent. This is a shortened version of what Peter had said in Acts 3:19-26 that their repentance would open the door for the restoration of Israel and the return of the Messiah as had been foretold by the prophets from ancient time.

Repentance is not a popular word in many circles of American Christianity. In fact, in some it is almost treated as a heretical theological term because some equate repentance with a work to earn salvation. But repentance is still a Biblical word and it is still a necessary prerequisite for salvation. Repentance does not and cannot earn you God’s grace, but without it, you cannot receive God’s grace for repentance is a turning away from wrong belief to the truth which is then followed by changes in a person’s life consistent with the change of mind. Jesus came to reveal the truth about God and His plan for man so that they could turn from their false ways to the truth and receive the forgiveness of sin. Jesus even came to save those who put Him to death as seen in His petition to the Father while still on the cross that He would forgive those who put Him there because they did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34).

Our message needs to be the same as the apostles. Though it is a message of God’s judgement, the emphasis must always be placed on His exaltation of Jesus Christ for what He has done and that there is hope for the sinner by repenting of the sin and having faith in Him. We too can offer this hope even to those that persecute us.

The apostles concluded their defense by not only declaring that they were witnesses of these things concerning Jesus Christ, but that the Holy Spirit was also a witness of them and God would grant the Holy Spirit to those that would obey Him. The ball was now back in the court of the Sanhedrin. How would they respond to the truth?

The Sanhedrin’s Response

The Sadducees (33). Verse 33-40 tell us that the reaction was a mixture of hatred and indifference. Verse 33 tells about those with the most negative response. “But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and were intending to slay them.” This is the opposite of the response of the people to Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2. They also were “cut to the quick” (Acts 2:37), but they wanted to know what they should do to be saved. These in the Sanhedrin wanted to kill the messengers that told them the truth. Since they were under Roman law and did not have the right to carry out the death penalty on their own, they could not carry out their desires right then, but they were immediately thinking of ways in which they could bring about their deaths. That is what they had done with Jesus, perhaps they could do the same thing with Jesus’ followers. It is safe to assume that most of these that were so furious this time were of the sect of the Sadducees since they were the ones most affected by the Apostles’ teaching since it was completely contrary to their rejection of the supernatural.

Gamaliel’s Advice (34-39). In verses 34-39 we meet a Pharisee named Gamaliel. He is an older man at this time with his influence being strongest in between the years A.D. 25-50. His grandfather was the well respected and influential Rabbi Hillel who had founded a school for Pharisees. Gamaliel had followed in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps in that tradition as a strong teacher within the sect of the Pharisees. We will find in Acts 22:3 that Gamaliel was the one that had been Paul’s mentor. As a Pharisee, Gamaliel believes in the supernatural including angels, miracles and the resurrection. While there is no indication in this text that he repented and believed the words of the apostles, at this point the Pharisees do see the Apostles’ message as one that is antagonistic to their rivals, the Sadducees, while being in keeping with their own beliefs of miracles and the resurrection. Acts 15:5 reveals that many Pharisees will eventually become followers of Jesus Christ. Gamaliel takes a moderate position, though somewhat indifferent to the Apostles themselves.

“34 But a certain Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. 36 “For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody; and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. And he was slain; and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 “After this man Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away [some] people after him, he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. 38 “And so in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”

Gamaliel had the apostles put outside while he presented his arguments against being hasty and rash in condemning them. As a Pharisee, he believes God is in control of the events that happen. His argument boils down to the idea that if the apostles were not from God, then whatever movement they were starting would eventually come to nothing of consequence. He cites two examples as proof. The first reference to Theodus was to one of the many rebellions that occurred either at the time following the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C. or the revolts that occurred in conjunction with Quirinius’ second census in A. D. 6 (Josephus writes that 2,000 were crucified for revolting at that time – Antiquities XVII,.10.4,10. This Theodus is not the one who revolted in 44 B.C. That Theodus revolved at least 10 years after Gamaliel’s speech in Acts 5). Those revolts resulted in nothing of consequence.

The second example, that of Judas of Galilee did occur during the second census by Quirinius in A.D. 6-7. He too died and his followers were scattered. However, his scattered followers were also the founders of the sect of the zealots who were now part of the political fabric of Israel. In both examples the results were of little or no consequence. Gamaliel also warned that if the apostles were from God, then they would be not be able to destroy them for they would be fighting against God. They should wait and see what happens.

Gamaliel’s reasoning is pragmatic, but actually it is not very sound to conclude that whatever is “successful” is of God and whatever fails is not from God. Remember that there are many “successful” cults with some having even millions of followers. The gate is wide and road is broad that leads to destruction while the gate small and the way is narrow that leads to life (Matt. 7:13,14).

Their Actions (40) In verse 40 we find that Gamaliel’s advice is used on the apostles behalf to quiet down the more rash members of the Sanhedrin. 40 And they took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, and [then] released them.

Instead of killing them, they just took out their anger by having them flogged. Note that Gamaliel does not raise any objection to the flogging. This shows his personal indifference to the apostles. Flogging consisted of being hit with a leather whip across the bare upper torso of the body with two thirds struck against the back and one third against the front. Mosiac law (Deut 25:2-3) allowed a maximum of 40 lashes, so they normal only gave 39 to protect themselves from breaking the law in case they miscounted. In Jewish flogging there would be a reading of appropriate Scripture verses while the blows were administered.

The Apostle’s Response (41,42)

While the wounds from flogging were meant to be marks of shame that would further humble the transgressor and keep them from repeating the offense, the opposite was true for the apostles. 41 So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for [His] name.

This also shows the submission of the apostles to the Lord. They rejoiced despite the pain and the injustice. They did take comfort in Jesus’ words concerning persecution and so they rejoiced to suffer like the prophets and the Lord who had suffered before them. They considered themselves blessed and could also be sure that their reward in heaven would be great (Matt. 5:10-12).

In addition, the flogging did not deter them in obeying Jesus’ command. 42 “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus [as] the Christ.” Note that despite the flogging and the threats they went right back to the temple to teach and preach Jesus as the Christ on a daily basis. The Sanhedrin was not able to stop them. They also did this from house to house which shows that they also were active in more personal ministry as well as to the masses.

What would stop you from telling others about Jesus? While it is still rare to have physical persecution against those that proclaim Jesus Christ in this nation, it does happen on occasion. Would that deter you? I fear that for most professing American Christians that it does not even take such a threat, but only a disapproving glance to get them to keep quiet about Jesus. That ought not to be, and it does not have to be. We serve the same Jesus that the apostles serve, and we can serve Him with the same boldness if we will set our minds, like they did, on Jesus Christ and things above instead of the things of this world (Col. 3:2). That is my challenge to you this morning. Preparation for persecution begins in the present by learning to live for Jesus Christ in the here and now when the risks and consequences are relatively small. In that way you will be ready to glorify Christ when the harder testing comes.


Sermon Study Sheets


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.

Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch.

Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up. 2) Count how man times the Apostles & the Sanhedrin are mentioned. Talk with your parents about how you can be more like the apostles.


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.

Why is the “health, wealth, prosperity” gospel heresy? What does Jesus say about persecution of His followers? Describe the first persecution against the church in Acts 4. What is the setting for the persecution in Acts 5? Describe the motivation for and the arrest of the apostles? Describe their release by the angel? What do after? Why? The Jewish leaders were confused / perplexed in Acts 5:24. Why? What were some explanations they may have considered for the apostles teaching in the Temple instead of being in jail? Describe the manner of the second arrest in verse 26. What did the High Priest fail to ask? What do his questions / accusations reveal? Were the apostles guilty of anything – did they break any law? Describe the the apostles defense? What were those on the Sanhedrin guilty of? What hope does the apostles give them? What is your message to non-Christians about their current state and future hope? Contrast the response of those in Acts 3:37 & 5:33. What is Gamaliel’s advice? What is good about it? What is bad about it? Describe flogging? Why do the apostles rejoice? Can you rejoice in persecution? Why or why not? What would stop you from telling another person about Jesus? How can you prepare for persecution? How are you preparing?

Sermon Notes – November 13, 2005

Persecution Escalates – Acts 5:17-42


The Setting (12-16)


The Arrest (17-18)


Released by an Angel (19-25)


The Re-Arrest (26)


The Questioning (27,28)


The Defense (29-32)


The Sanhedrin’s Response

Angry Men


Gamaliel’s Advice


Their Actions

The Apostle’s Response

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